Card Collectors Pay Dearly for Gum

April 2, 2001 -- Remember when baseball card collecting was a little boy's hobby?

It was like a treasure hunt — kids could get a pack of 15 cards for 35 cents (or large packs of 48 cards for 50 cents), hoping to get pictures of some of their favorite baseball heroes. You hoped to avoid getting "doubles" — replicas — of cards; growing up, cards featuring Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron were like gold.

And even if your pack of cards was riddled with doubles, at least you had a consolation prize — a stick of gum whose sweet, sugary scent was unmistakable even if the gum itself was so stale it crumbled inside your mouth.

Ten years ago, baseball cards arguably lost some of their innocence when the baseball card industry removed gum from its packs. Both new and longtime collectors complained that the gum was staining — and sapping the value of their investments.

Guess what, collectors — gum's 10-year exile is over. In recognition of its 50th anniversary in the baseball card business, the Topps Company has brought gum back in a special set of cards it calls its Heritage collection.

"It [gum's return] was based on our 50th anniversary and feelings of nostalgia," Topps spokesman Clay Luraschi said. "For our anniversary, we really wanted to focus on what we did back then, so we decided to bring back the gum and figured a way to do it without damaging the cards."

To prevent staining, manufacturers packaged the gum in cellophane. Still, the gum is only a part of the Heritage set's retro look. When Topps removed gum from its packs in 1991, the old traditional look of its cards also seemed to vanish. As its younger competitors — companies such as Score, Upper Deck and Fleer — began to emphasize action shots of ballplayers, so did Topps. Traditional portraits of players posing in a simple batting stance and headshots became rare.

With Heritage, today's baseball heroes are given retro makeover. Collectors have a chance to see players such as Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds in brushed headshot photos modeled after Topps' 1952 baseball card set.

Retro Look at Modern Prices

Topps' Heritage set not only celebrates a company milestone but also seems to answer a growing demand for a return to nostalgia in the baseball card industry. In the past two years, Fleer and Upper Deck have produced sets that copied the look of Topps cards from the 1950s.

"There's definitely been a retro movement," said Luraschi. "The '52 [Topps] design is considered one of the most classic designs created and to bring it back to these collectors and their kids — it's a great thing."

Still, there's nothing nostalgic about the price of the Heritage cards. Each pack has only 8 cards and costs $3.00 each. Topps is not selling the 407-card collection in a complete set because, Luraschi said, the company wanted to emphasize the way cards were collected in 1952: they were not sold in sets and fans had to attempt to manually complete their sets. In addition, Topps shortprinted — made fewer copies of — the last 96 cards of the set, making them more difficult to find.

So, eager collectors will just have to keep buying the pricey packs of cards to complete their Heritage sets, something one card dealer believes could backfire on Topps.

"I've received a lot of calls [on the Heritage cards], but many people were turned off by the price," said Mike DeLuca, a baseball card dealer based in Smithtown, N.Y. "Some told me they had no idea that the cards were so high. And the fact that they've shortprinted nearly 100 of the cards — that could turn away many buyers."

Still, collectors are buying the cards, and they are in limited supply. Stores such as Magnum Comics and Cards in the Bronx and Its Another Hit in Manhattan have either sold out their stocks or are waiting for more cards to come in. Larry Fritsch Cards Inc. in Wisconsin has told their customers that Heritage Cards are in "very limited" supply and have recommended reserving their orders. And the increasing rarity of the cards is being reflected in their prices. Some dealers are selling boxes containing 24 packs of Heritage cards for at least $169, and the prices are climbing.

So rejoice, baseball card fans. The gum, the thrill of the treasure hunt and nostalgia are back … just tell your parents you'll need more than 35 cents this time.